Poems from Railman's Son
Tomato Soup Reminds Me
That was the summer my mother slouched
at the table, so beaten down, numbed
by the death of her first son burnt deep
into her bones while my father sat
at table’s end, working into a fury.
The summer I flailed at curve balls,
beat up once a week by the Schmidt
brothers. I walked the railroad yards
between steaming engines
and peeling, off-red box cars.
Every day the wind blew
in from the southeast where the meat
plant sat, the stench of shit and blood.
I walked on Main, sneaking glances
into the faces of those escapees
from the bars; those ruined
faces, those tired faces looted
of hope. Their bunched shoulders.
Waiting for me, a cracked
linoleum floor, another bowl
of tomato soup and my father
in another rage. The summer
my mother first crossed her hands
and wept. The summer I vowed
never to return. The summer I prayed
for amnesty. The summer when each
day dripped into a soiled
twilight and the wind shifted—clean
and cool from the north.
Winner of the Edna St. Vincent Millay
Prize for Poetry
The Tilting Saddle Bar
(after James Wright)
Down the splintered steps, I turn
toward the James and its steep banks
strangled with cattails and hobo weeds.
Upstream, at the Third Street bridge,
looms the Hormel plant, its whistle
wailing and its doors opening to the early
evening crickets. The men pour down
the long hill, pour down to the river
and over the bridge into a pale sun,
past abandoned railcars into silo
shadows and beckoning downtown lights.
With abandon, I run through the river park
to catch them—then straggle behind
as some head to shanty houses;
others to neon. And I trail them.
Downtown, one old man, face purple
stands near a bar door that swings on tight
hinges and glares at the men then me.
And I plunge in and find scrawny
women, faces uplifted, legs crossed.
In the back, sit laid-off railmen—
my father one—three drinks into the night.
His eyes blurry, his voice loud over the jukebox.
I cringe. Patrons, now sloppy drunk,
pinching women’s asses as they head
to the can. The air sweat filled, smoke tinged.
More whiskey shots and beer chasers.
The men’s faces drunk red, their eyes
shining with coming madness.
Then the shadow boxing, the boasts,
some guy puking in the corner. Two guys
pick him up, put him on a bar stool, order
him two whiskeys. They laugh when his hands
shake too much to hold a shot glass.
My stomach roils and my father shouts: Son.
And the stale beer and the cigarettes
sink into my pores for all
the coming years of my life.
Crab Orchard Review,
Ka-Ching: The Money Issue, March 2019
The father plods from funeral to gravesite
back to his black Buick and sits.
Revs the motor,
smoking the tenth Camel of the day.
His black suit too small for his shoulders.
Once home, the father chops up
all the Bibles,
and pisses on them before he pours
gasoline on the mess and lights it.
He is a man at war,
How the flames
singe his fingers, blister them for days.
Later, he will be surprised by his wife’s anger,
his mother’s anguished words. But he damn well
knows he did the right thing. He can still feel
of his tiny fingers. His son dead.
Two months old.
Comstock Review, Spring/Summer, 2019